Kanye West: A Genius in Praise of Himself
It’s the wee hours of a Monday night in London, and inside Stringfellows strip club, about a dozen scantily clad women form a rough semicircle around Kanye West and his small entourage. The girls let him know that for just one twenty-pound note (about forty dollars), they will drop their knickers and gyrate in his face for the length of one song, and while I contemplate how low the U.S. dollar has plummeted, West scans the room and kicks back on a couch, armed with a stack of bills. Over the next few hours, he hardly moves an inch. The strip-club environment seems to have tranquilized him. For someone who travels through life at hyperspeed and talks a mile a minute, West is unusually still and silent. Inside these walls, during this brief moment, he is able to pleasantly disconnect himself from the hoopla surrounding his new album, Graduation, and his impending showdown with 50 Cent at the record stores.
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Graduation is West’s third album. In 2004, as a pink-Polo-wearing preppy with a positive message, the Chicago native broke through with The College Dropout, netting three Grammys, including one for his song “Jesus Walks,” which contemplated his relationship with God, and another for his skilled production work behind the Alicia Keys hit “You Don’t Know My Name.” In 2005, he branched out with Late Registration, the five-star album on which he collaborated with producer Jon Brion. Over the years, West has become a lightning rod for controversy, not only for his highly un-hip-hop fashion sense (which could be described as metrosexual) but also for braggadocio and unfiltered outspokenness regarding the ills of society.
Famously, West complained to reporters backstage at the 2004 American Music Awards after country singer Gretchen Wilson won for Best New Artist, expressed his outrage at the rampant homophobia in hip-hop and, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, declared that George Bush doesn’t care about black people. Aside from the rare fashion faux pas – he’d like to forget that he showed up at the Grammys last year in a lavender tuxedo/white-glove combo – it is usually West’s mouth that lands him in pop-culture purgatory. And last November, after he stormed the stage to protest a Best Video victory by dance-music tag team Justice and Simian at MTV’s European Music Awards, he watched his approval ratings plummet. “When I saw it on MSN the next day, it looks like I went into an orphanage and bit a baby’s head off,” says West, who obsessively monitors his image via blogs and other Internet sites. “I felt like the Earth was on top of me.”
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It was a wake-up call. And instead of publicly defending himself, West chilled out and hunkered down, immersing himself in the music. Graduation is another stellar accomplishment. His thoughts are focused, his stories are vivid, and his rhymes can be both bizarre and breathtaking. “Drunk and Hot Girls” is a dead-honest portrayal of chasing ladies, inspired by a hook from the 1972 Can cut “Sing Swan Song.” (Listening to the original track, West heard the line “drunk and hot girls,” while the actual lyrics appear to be “drunky hot bowls.”) “Champion” samples Steely Dan‘s gem “Kid Charlemagne.” Coldplay‘s Chris Martin adds gospel-flavored piano on “Homecoming.” And “Big Brother” is a tear-jerking ode to his mentor and label boss, Jay-Z.
As a performer, West seems to operate entirely on impulses. During the three shows I witness in the London area, there is no set list, and if a song failed to ignite an audience, it was aborted on West’s command. In conversation, over the course of many hours in his hotel room and while traveling through England, he is impulsive as well. He frequently veers off-subject, breaks into song, thinks up new lyrics and cracks jokes. Sometimes he can only tide his loquacity and end a rant with a sentence so random that there is nowhere to go with it (“Hey, I just looked down and realized how dope my shirt is”).
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